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View related content: K-12 Schooling
How would a President Romney tackle education? An answer requires keeping three things in mind. First, education is a minor issue in this election and would be a secondary concern for a Republican president focused on economic growth, the deficit, tax cuts, and reversing the Affordable Care Act.
Second, there are few stark differences between Mitt Romney and President Obama when it comes to education. Both support more transparency, endorse charter schools, support more intensive teacher evaluation and differentiated pay, and insist that something needs to be done about persistently low-performing schools. However, Romney’s stance differs from Obama on vouchers, treatment of for-profit providers, and the appropriate federal role in education.
Third, some caution is required in divining Romney’s core beliefs. Indeed, many conservatives have fretted that his campaign lacks a clear policy agenda. Romney also has long been a moving target on policy and ideology. Some will recall that, when he challenged Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994, he famously tried to run to Kennedy’s left — endorsing Roe v. Wade and insisting he’d be a stronger proponent of gay rights than Kennedy. Today, Romney’s stance on those issues is quite different. In particular, Romney’s nomination of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan seemed to signal willingness to embrace aggressive cuts in federal spending and bold proposals to reshape the federal role.
When trying to predict future actions, it’s useful to ask what a candidate has done when previously in office. Romney’s education record as Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007 looks a lot like President Obama’s has. Romney inherited a strong reform tradition — built around standards, testing, and accountability. He maintained and strengthened this commitment by adding a science test to the state’s accountability system and supporting high school exit exams. He also pushed a controversial plan to mandate parenting classes for parents in low-performing districts seeking to enroll their kids in kindergarten.
In terms of school choice, Romney vetoed a bill to place a moratorium on opening new charter schools, and the number of charter schools increased modestly, from 46 to 59. He unsuccessfully championed merit pay for the top third of performers and for math and science teachers, offering bonuses of up to $5,000. He pushed for addressing low-performing schools with strategies that are quite similar to those favored by the Obama administration, including making it easier to replace principals and teachers in such schools or turning them into charters. So, where would a President Romney likely come down on some of the key education questions he’d face as president?
The 2011-12 GOP primary season featured talk of, in the words of Rep. Michele Bachmann, “turning out the lights” at the Department of Education. When Romney ran for Senate in 1994, he supported eliminating the Department of Education (one of the planks in that year’s Contract with America). Today, his view is quite different. “I’ve been a governor and seen the impact that the federal government can have holding down the interests of the teachers’ unions and instead putting the interests of the kids and the parents and the teachers first. I see that the Department of Education can actually make a difference,” he said during a debate in South Carolina in 2007.
As president, Romney would be working with many Hill Republicans who want the Department of Education to go away. But things aren’t that simple. Even Hill Republicans are split on this score, and many Tea Partiers also have voted to maintain or increase spending on the major federal education programs like student loans, special education, and Title I. More to the point, Romney’s team knows that public support for abolishing the Department of Education is low, which makes a serious effort to dismantle it unlikely.
In Washington today, the big conservative-liberal divide on school reform is less about what to do and more about the appropriate federal role. Conservatives argue that the feds can make states and districts do things like turnarounds and teacher evaluations, but they can’t make them do them well. As Harvard professor and chief Romney education adviser Marty West says, “[Romney] believes the federal government is poorly positioned to specify what needs to be done at the local level.”
So, a Romney administration is less likely to differ from the Obama administration on what good policy looks like and more likely to differ on the federal role in pushing those policies.
Romney embraces NCLB’s core testing and transparency requirements and wants a reauthorization that holds fast to those, while jettisoning much of the rest of the Act. Indeed, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Romney was the only GOP candidate to unapologetically endorse NCLB. “I supported No Child Left Behind. I still do. I know there are a lot in my party that don’t like it, but I like testing in our schools. I think it allows us to get better schools, better teachers,” he said during the 2007 debates.
Thus, Romney aides report that he was puzzled when media reports suggested earlier this year that he had broken with NCLB. The thing is, Romney sees the law as encompassing two distinct components: He supports requirements on testing, disaggregation, and transparency, and sees them as distinct from the law’s balky, intrusive “remedy cascade” and other prescriptions.
The Romney campaign’s education document, A Chance for Every Child, explains that Romney endorses NCLB’s emphasis on accountability and supports grading schools on an A through F or similar scale. But he believes prescriptions like the “highly qualified teacher” requirement “reinforce hurdles that prevent talented individuals from entering the teaching profession in the first place.” The campaign also says NCLB “is overly prescriptive” in its interventions for low-performing schools.
It may sound odd to educators who revile President George W. Bush as a right-winger and often skewer even President Obama as “conservative,” but, in Republican circles, the Bush years are mostly remembered as a time when Republicans drifted from conservative principles. After all, in Bush’s first term, federal K-12 spending nearly doubled, from $29 to $56 billion a year. In fact, in the Bush administration’s first three years, K-12 spending increased by more than it did during the entire Clinton administration.
Romney has promised Republicans that things will be different on his watch. Romney’s proposal states, “Unfortunately, like a man with a hammer that sees every problem as a nail, President Obama’s policy response to every education challenge has been more federal spending,” with little in the way of results. Instead of throwing more money at the system, Romney promises to “focus on ensuring that money is spent well.” On this count, giving the VP nod to Paul Ryan sent a strong signal, as Ryan’s much-discussed Roadmap for America’s Future would cut $5.3 trillion over the next decade (and would reduce spending on education, training, employment, and social services by 33% in that span).
In Washington, nobody really likes NCLB’s Title II (the federal program intended to boost teacher quality). Romney has promised to overhaul Title II, creating a single block grant for states that adopt policies to improve teacher quality. Such a program would likely fund state efforts to adopt teacher evaluations incorporating student achievement, reward teachers and principals deemed effective, reform tenure, streamline the certification process, and prohibit seniority-based transfer and dismissal. Republican presidents since Reagan routinely promise to turn program funds into block grants, and they’ve rarely had much success because members of Congress hate to see favored projects fade away. Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether Hill Republicans would accept all the conditions Romney envisions.
Truth is, no matter who wins in 2012, education is in for tough sledding. Given structural deficits, massive entitlement commitments, an unwillingness to substantially raise taxes, a reluctance to restrain spending, and the new outlays required by health care reform, there’ll be little cash for new domestic programs.
Perhaps the sharpest distinction between the Obama administration and a prospective Romney administration lies with the issue of school choice. Now, it’s useful to preface any such discussion by noting that Obama has been a more vocal champion of charter schools than Bush.
However, there are two distinct places where a President Romney would break with the Obama administration. The first is Romney’s explicit support for school vouchers. Romney has pledged to expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher program for low-income students in the District of Columbia.
Second, Romney would be more aggressive than his predecessors when it comes to pushing states to expand choice options. Romney wants to eliminate caps on charter and virtual schools and allocate more funds to increase the number of charter schools.
In addition, Romney would expand school choice by essentially turning $15 billion in Title I funding and $12 billion in IDEA funds into “vouchers” that eligible students could spend to attend any district, charter, or private school where permitted by state law, or for tutoring or digital courses. This Reagan-era proposal poses an opportunity to broaden notions of public school choice but faces several challenges.
A Romney administration might rapidly negate all waivers issued by Secretary Arne Duncan and then use the Obama administration’s precedent to establish its own conditional waiver process.
These include the very modest per-pupil sums it would entail, the question of how to push states to comply, and the likelihood that critics would contend that the plan would functionally steer federal funds away from some of the nation’s poorest schools.
The Obama administration’s enthusiastic embrace of the Common Core State Standards through Race to the Top, the ESEA “blueprint,” and in granting NCLB waivers, has helped encourage 40-odd states to adopt the reading and math standards. Some prominent conservatives — like Jeb Bush and Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett — strongly support the Common Core. But Obama’s actions have fueled suspicion among Tea Partiers that the Common Core is yet another example of overreaching federal policy. They put it in the same category as the 2009 stimulus, “cash for clunkers,” G.M. bailout, and health care reform.
Romney’s plan sidesteps the issue. His campaign plan doesn’t even mention the Common Core. However, as Education Week’s Alyson Klein has reported, “Romney’s campaign staff said he is supportive of the Common Core State Standards, but thinks the Obama administration has gone too far in encouraging states to adopt them.”
In practice, Romney is more likely to select a Common Core-friendly Secretary than a skeptic. This would mean two things. First, the exit of the Obama team may mollify conservative legislators and state board members, helping Common Core proponents in the scramble to fund implementation and adopt new assessments. Second, Romney officials would be able to reassure Republicans about the Common Core, which may actually be more helpful at this stage for the effort’s prospects.
The Obama administration’s widespread use of NCLB waivers has sucked most of the urgency out of reauthorization. States were mostly concerned with not having to label vast numbers of schools as failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress, and the waivers have addressed those concerns.
The bigger issue here is that the Obama administration has employed its waiver authority in a novel way, dramatically expanding the administration’s ability to dictate state policy by setting forth a host of conditions for states seeking waivers. This tactic has appalled conservatives and is noxious to any Republican worried about Washington overreach, but it also stands as a mouth-watering precedent and invitation for an administration eager to pursue its agenda without having to woo or wait upon Congress.
A Romney administration eager to play “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” might rapidly negate all waivers issued by Secretary Arne Duncan and then use the Obama administration’s precedent to establish its own wish-list conditional waiver process — perhaps, for instance, requiring states seeking waivers to make Title I portable, adopt merit pay, narrow the scope of collective bargaining, and/or make California’s parent trigger a mandatory option for persistently low-performing schools.
A President Romney would likely break sharply with the Obama administration’s skeptical, or even hostile, treatment of for-profits. Romney has made it clear he would return to the Bush administration’s much more supportive stance. The Romney education plan promises to “welcome private sector participation instead of pushing it away” and to “reverse President Obama’s nationalization of the student loan market and welcome private sector participation in providing information, financing, and the education itself.”
Two interesting things to watch: First, when it comes to schooling, Romney is in pretty much the same bind he is on health care. As governor, his reforms looked a lot like those favored by President Obama. This requires that Romney make the case that some measures are more appropriately done by the states and not by Washington. I think this is a good and sensible argument that recognizes the constitutional constraints that such reforms depend on context, and that federal efforts are forced to rely upon bureaucratic rule writing that turns good ideas into red tape. But this is a subtle distinction and a difficult message to convey, and one with which Romney has struggled.
Second, and finally, an old political science axiom is that “people are policy.” Right now, Romney’s education team is infused with old Bush hands and advisors with strong ties to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Indeed, it seems a safe bet that Jeb Bush would be a key figure in shaping a Romney Department of Education. Tensions between the Tea Party and the party’s more proactive “Republicans-for-School-Reform” wing would ultimately turn on who wins the game of musical chairs at the White House and Department of Education. In the end, Romney’s plans would depend as much on who fills key positions as on anything else.
So, would a President Romney be better for schooling than President Obama? The truth is that nominees are shiny new toys in an unopened box. They’re full of promise and unmarred by disappointment or experience. Just think back to the bundle of hope and change that was Obama in ’08. Today, we may have a bit more clarity as to what a President Romney would do than we did with the Obama of four years ago, because Romney’s time in Massachusetts provides some clues. But Romney has long been a work in progress, and he’s said little about education, so it’s hard to project too much from his record. The safe bet is that a President Romney would keep much of the same substantive agenda as Obama, but would do so with a lighter touch, less spending, and more emphasis on choice. I think those are sensible things and would likely prove a healthy corrective… but, then again, it’s easy to be taken with the potential of that shrink-wrapped box.
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